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"Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1).
Who is RJ Rushdoony, this enigmatic figure of Reformed theology and Calvinist fame?
The verse above was a favorite of RJ Rushdoony, a man who remains in the background of many conversations about the spiritual state of America today. According to the Chalcedon Foundation Rousas John Rushdoony (1916 – 2001) was a philosopher, historian, theologian, preacher, and advocate — among other things. While volumes could be written about the volumes he wrote we will focus on broad agreement and specific disagreements. As a prolific writer, he promoted the idea that the family has a vital role in the formation of a godly society. Known by friends as Rush, he founded the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965 to promote God's “law-word” in all areas of American life. This stems from his reading of the views of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) on sphere sovereignty which form the foundation of a robust Christian political philosophy and theology.
Theonomy is the term often used to describe the application of God’s law to all areas. While this term sounds like theocracy, as we will see they are not the same thing. Rushdoony promoted what he called Christian Reconstructionism which has been conflated with dominionism, the pejorative neologism of certain secularists. However, we know that all laws are based on an appeal to God’s or man’s authority. It is our job to work this out, like our salvation, in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13).
Rushdoony was the son of Armenian Christian immigrants who were all too familiar with the realities of genocide and statist oppression. His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, educated in Edinburgh, Scotland who survived World War I and the Turkish slaughter of his countrymen and then fled via Russia to the United States with the sponsorship of the missionary church he served. Because of his upbringing, Rush was sympathetic to the plight of freedom-loving Americans who wanted to maintain the nation that took in refugees and fought for liberty.
Rushdoony has something to say about our current situation in America where decades of spiritual confusion is culminating in degradation. Mentioning his name piques the interest of informed atheists and secular pagans. They are gravely afraid of Christians who assert the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all areas of life, including and especially the laws of our land. These anti-Christ and anti-religious activists will claim that pluralism requires Christians to take a backseat to unbelievers in public policy. If the church acquiesces to these ungodly demands, it will destroy this country. Reducing America to rubble will not save it. At that point, the graves of Christians and pagans alike will litter this land. That is why Christians should lead in all areas of our country, and work with reasonable non-Christians on policies that benefit everyone because we will preserve our lives and give people the chance to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I differ with Rushdoony (and others who drink from his stream of thought) when he veers toward the exclusivity of Presbyterian or Reformed theology in this leadership.
The Constantine Doctrine points out that society benefits from Christian leadership. Globally and historically many people benefited from this leadership through Western Civilization. We are all “one body …of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and the universal Church is God’s vehicle for the transformation of individuals and nations. The question of who is qualified to lead directly intersects conversations about Christian Nationalism, which promotes Christian laws and leadership. Some people, either intentionally or unintentionally, frame this topic as a denominational power play. Baptists fear persecution from Calvinists and therefore invite persecution by atheists. Rather, we should embrace the fact a total commitment to the Biblical foundation of our founding in the United States of America must lead to an ecumenical approach to civil government.
It is important that we are led by Christians, not necessarily Calvinists. But certainly, Calvinists are Christian, and many are capable of leading if they do not slander the church. I sympathize with many people who strongly hold Reformed views. This faith tradition emphasizes God’s sovereign reign over all His creation. I have friends who are Presbyterian. I was once a member of an EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) church. This is a solid, orthodox, and Biblically sound congregation of believers with whom I continue friendship. I also study reformed thinkers, one of my favorite Calvinist teachers is pastor Doug Wilson, a devotee of Rushdoony and one of the most incisive Christian authors in this nation.
A broad base for Christian leadership is a matter of charity. All Christians should extend the hand of brotherhood and love in faith to those who rightly call Jesus Lord. Disagreements do not a heresy make. This approach does not require strictly religious leaders in our nation, but it establishes a baseline to judge the morality of our leaders - namely the Word of God. And anyone who thinks that promoting Christian leadership is the same as pursuing a theocratic form of government is an idiot. This is where theonomy and theocracy differ, the former asserts divine authority over human agents while the latter attempts to instantiate this authority in human agents.
Leadership is a relationship between people. We must strive for a more righteous and ethical populace and then we will get a better government. Theonomy states that God’s law is written on our hearts and revealed in the Bible. And, the enforcement of this law is necessary for people to live in harmony. This same law is the basis for all morality in every culture and nation even if they do not acknowledge the lawgiver. This is the principle of natural law which dovetails with theonomic principles. But, being a Christian in a position of political power is not equivalent to rule by God (the proper definition of theocracy) or rule by priests (a modified version). We are still fallible men. When Jesus returns, we will have our perfect God and king ruling. Until then, we should not assume that pastors and priests make better leaders than earthly kings and presidents. Preaching and leading are different skills.
A further point of disagreement with Rushdoony comes from any comments he made or wrote that reek of racism or kinism.
While Rushdoony was not a racist, he allowed his inarticulate use of terms to slide toward a misunderstanding about race relations, especially by rejecting interracial marriages even between Christians. This is dumb. Many in the reformed camp have gone to using the term “kinism” to describe the rejection of racism from a conservative perspective. Others prefer the Biblical term ethnoi (from which we get the term ethnic) rather than race as a description of differences between peoples. They refuse to give ground to race hustlers and baiters who use the charge of racism to silence enemies of Marxism. So, to reject the accusation of racism they adopted the term kinism as their target… which means going beyond the good and natural affection for similar people of the same background (kin) to hatred of those who do not share these ties that bind us (kinism). Fine.
Let’s break down a few passages from Rushdoony’s own writing that sound kinist or racist (if you’d like).
“Moreover, if she is to be “a help as before him,” a mirror, there must be a common cultural background. This militates against marriages across cultures and across races where there is no common culture or association possible.”1 This is foolish. If you are Christian, race doesn’t matter as much as faith even though it does affect your family. It may be easier to marry someone from your hometown whose parents live down the street, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily better. As the church has expanded and travel has increased our marriages will include people from different nations. Christians should know better than to write or say anything that even smells like opposition to interracial marriage or miscegenation.
“The burden of the law is thus against inter-religious, inter-racial, and inter-cultural marriages, in that they normally go against the very community which marriage is designed to establish.”2 There is no law against race and culture in marriages. What is stated in the Bible is that foreign men and women will bring their gods with them into a nation. The problem is not race but religion. Rushdoony goes on to make this point, after stepping in it. If a person is a Christian, then race and culture are subsumed under the lordship of Christ. Any differences in expression and practice of that faith are secondary to the unity of the faith and worked out between husband and wife.
“I'm interested in a Christian future for the United States, and for the world. Not a racist one. I don't believe the United States or North America belongs to the white man any more than I believe Africa belongs to the black man.”3 True and good. On marriage and race, Rushdoony is weak. But in politics, he strongly delineates the fact that our nation is God’s and not given to any one people based on skin color.
“By means of the resurrection, Jesus Christ overcame and destroyed the power of sin and death and became our Adam, the head of God's new human race. We must remember that the term race was in common use in the early church, which spoke of Christians as a race, and prayers were offered up in the church for 'the race of Christians.’”4 One of the major problems in our culture is that we speak about race as ethnic differences, skin tone, and facial shapes instead of humanity broadly. I will not use the term “race of Christians” because the Church consists of all nations, people, and tongues (Revelation 7:9) and reduces racial division (Galatians 3:28). We agree that humans are made in the image of God but we should not need to parse words to uncover hidden meanings on this point. Clear condemnations of racial hatred and kinism are better.
This conflict between Rushdoony and a Biblical worldview presents a challenge to Christians who want to build a robust political theology. We reference influential thinkers whose errors often seep into our dialog. He wrote many profound things about the secular state. It is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff (between people, let alone within one man’s own thoughts) in this dense overgrowth of modern philosophy. Therefore, our view of the state must be informed primarily by the Bible and then elucidated on points of agreement and disagreement with various human commentators, as I have sought to do here.
Christians should be wholly innocent of the charge of racism even as we are accused of the same, as Doug Wilson has said. Labeling overt and unapologetic Christians who seek to be involved in charting the course of the United States as “white supremacists” or “white nationalists” or “theocrats” or “dominionists” is foolish. The Church is the most multiethnic group in the world, bar none. Most Christians have never read Rushdoony’s Institutes of Christian Law and would not attempt to prosecute Old Testament crimes under our modern system of jurisprudence or oppose the marriage of people from different ethnicities.5 Still most Christians need to get out of their comfort zone to live according to God’s word. We need leaders who apply the truths of scripture in our municipalities and federal government.
Our problem is not our model of government or divisions in the church but the failure of Christians to believe in the truth, act upon it and lead accordingly.
The accusation of an attempted Christian takeover of a nation founded by Christians is a non sequitur and meant to silence the church’s witness. Christian Reconstruction by Rushdoony falls in this category. Sara Diamond (b. 1958) coined the term dominionism as a made-up term to describe the "central unifying ideology for the Christian.”6 This is false. Christianity is a religion, but ideology is a secular religious substitute. Ross Douthat (b. 1979), a Catholic and conservative writer for the New York Times, wrote, “Many of the people that writers like Diamond and others describe as 'dominionists' would disavow the label, many definitions of dominionism conflate several very different Christian political theologies, and there's a lively debate about whether the term is even useful at all.”7 This is true, but that does not stop them from persisting in their error.
the For these reasons, we must reckon with Rushdoony but need not abide by every notion of his nor associate closely with him. Instead, we may selectively refer to his Biblical ideas when appropriate. He frequently pointed out our obligations to the law through Christ, “And so he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3b-4). We who call Jesus Lord must support good and godly leaders who live by the spirit. Seek his face. Work toward revival. Build the Kingdom of God. Let us pray that God will raise up a new generation of leaders who serve Him and glorify Him. This is our only hope if Jesus tarries a while longer.
Rushdoony, R. J. (2002). Genesis. United States: Ross House Books.
Rushdoony, R. J., North, G. (1973). The Institutes of Biblical Law. United States: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
Rushdoony, R. J. (2000) Systematic Theology: Vol II. Ross House Books, p. 1145.
Rushdoony, R. J. (2009). The Institutes of Biblical Law Vol. 1 (Vol. 1). Chalcedon Foundation.
Diamond, S. (1995). Roads to Dominion: Right-wing movements and political power in the United States. Guilford Press.
Douthat, Ross 2011. "The New Yorker and Francis Schaeffer." The New York Times. August 29, 2011.